Sense-Making vs. Sense-Unmaking

One widely acclaimed methodology in information science is Dervin’s “Sense Making Methodolgy” (SMM). It is very similar to the way people often think about “storytelling”:

Because communication is embodied and learned in impositional and constraining structures (families, communities, cultures, societies), SMM assumes that most spontaneous communication is, in fact, not spontaneous. Rather, spontaneity in communication invites habitual repetition of hegemony and habitus. Interrupting this usual-ness requires a different kind of interviewing — one based on verbs rather than nouns; one that allows for articulation time and conscientizing; one that gives individuals safety for expressing what they “really” think, feel, do, imagine; one that gives informants freedom to be variable, to be sometimes clear and sometimes muddled; sometimes very cognitive, sometimes emotional, sometimes both at the same time.

— [ INTERVIEWING AS DIALECTICAL PRACTICE:
SENSE-MAKING METHODOLOGY AS EXEMPLAR by © 2008, Brenda Dervin, School of Communication, Ohio State University, USA , page 13 ]

In Professor Dervin’s approach, information is seen as the act of reducing uncertainty. The opposite — increasing uncertainty — would therefore be interpreted as something like misinformation or disinformation.

Yet what if we — for example — remove the certainty that God exists? What if people believe a myth to be certainly true, and we remove that notion of truth?

According to Dervin’s views, we would have robbed them the happiness of being confident that their beliefs are true — and in increasing their uncertainty, they would feel less well-informed.

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Dumb

If you believe something to be true, but do not assert your belief, then you are probably dumb. 😉

 

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There is No Such Thing as Context-Free Meaning

For this post, I would like to start out with two operational definitions:

  1. Context-Free Websites
  2. Contextual Websites

„Context-Free“ websites purport to be containers without context. Supposedly, there is no „situation“ or „issue“ which constrains the content – it is assumed that all data contained in such a website is provided without any context whatsoever. Some readers may be reminded that this is one marker of a „Retard Media“ website (but there are others – for more on „Retard Media“, see this definition).

The diametric opposite of context-free websites are referred to as „Contextual“ websites. Contextual websites are clearly situated in the real world, and they also have clearly defined „in real life“ (IRL) issues. They are anything but open spaces, free-for-all playgrounds, romping rooms released to anyone, be they brand name marketing department representives, or whether they come from spamming outbacks, hacker havens or other terrorist enclaves.

Contextual websites are most definitely constrained: If you do not appreciate such constraints, then you are plain and simple not welcome.

What is less clear to most is that context-free websites are by their nature meaningless. Yet if you reflect a little, it should be easy to see and understand that incoherent babble – as it does not cohere to anything – must be meaningless babble.

One of my favorite authors – Mark Twain – described such a „detached from life“ being at the end of one of the last stories / novels he published (see, e.g. “The Mysterious Stranger and Other Stories”, by Mark Twain):

“Life itself is only a vision, a dream.”

It was electrical. By God! I had had that very thought a thousand times in my musings!

“Nothing exists; all is a dream. God—man—the world—the sun, the moon, the wilderness of stars—a dream, all a dream; they have no existence. Nothing exists save empty space—and you!”

“I!”

“And you are not you—you have no body, no blood, no bones, you are but a thought. I myself have no existence; I am but a dream—your dream, creature of your imagination. In a moment you will have realized this, then you will banish me from your visions and I shall dissolve into the nothingness out of which you made me….

“I am perishing already—I am failing—I am passing away. In a little while you will be alone in shoreless space, to wander its limitless solitudes without friend or comrade forever—for you will remain a thought, the only existent thought, and by your nature inextinguishable, indestructible. But I, your poor servant, have revealed you to yourself and set you free. Dream other dreams, and better!

“Strange! that you should not have suspected years ago—centuries, ages, eons, ago!—for you have existed, companionless, through all the eternities. Strange, indeed, that you should not have suspected that your universe and its contents were only dreams, visions, fiction! Strange, because they are so frankly and hysterically insane—like all dreams: a God who could make good children as easily as bad, yet preferred to make bad ones; who could have made every one of them happy, yet never made a single happy one; who made them prize their bitter life, yet stingily cut it short; who gave his angels eternal happiness unearned, yet required his other children to earn it; who gave his angels painless lives, yet cursed his other children with biting miseries and maladies of mind and body; who mouths justice and invented hell—mouths mercy and invented hell—mouths Golden Rules, and forgiveness multiplied by seventy times seven, and invented hell; who mouths morals to other people and has none himself; who frowns upon crimes, yet commits them all; who created man without invitation, then tries to shuffle the responsibility for man’s acts upon man, instead of honorably placing it where it belongs, upon himself; and finally, with altogether divine obtuseness, invites this poor, abused slave to worship him!…

“You perceive, now, that these things are all impossible except in a dream. You perceive that they are pure and puerile insanities, the silly creations of an imagination that is not conscious of its freaks—in a word, that they are a dream, and you the maker of it. The dream-marks are all present; you should have recognized them earlier.

“It is true, that which I have revealed to you; there is no God, no universe, no human race, no earthly life, no heaven, no hell. It is all a dream—a grotesque and foolish dream. Nothing exists but you. And you are but a thought—a vagrant thought, a useless thought, a homeless thought, wandering forlorn among the empty eternities!”

He vanished, and left me appalled; for I knew, and realized, that all he had said was true.

The more incoherent a site is, the more meaningless are the messages the site aims to convey. The content – whether big data or small bits – thereby becomes as insiginificant as nothing more than a heap of garbage. To top it off, one could of course lie to people… – for example: one could tell them it is all about faces even though in reality it is all about brands. 😉

 

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Limitations in the WordPress Notifications algorithm

Ted and Brandon’s most recent episode of the „Concerning AI“ podcast is a very rewarding listen… – mainly because of their thinking with respect to compassion towards (or against) algorithms.

Having compassion towards or against an algorithm seems like a very strange concept, and I feel I very much agree with Ted and Brandon’s thinking during the episode, but I also want to use the suggestion as a „what if“ sort of springboard.

Ted and Brandon provided several examples algorithms (and/or tools). Perhaps the quintessential example is the hammer (for pounding nails). Another example they provided was the so-called „Google“ algorithm (presumably counting the links that point to any particular internet address, in order to „load the value“ of that address). Another algorithm they mentioned was an „alpha“ (sp?) Go algorithm. One they didn’t mention was the Facebook Group algorithm, which they employ for the purposes of facilitating discussions related to the podcast. Another algorithm (or perhaps „procedural code“ might be a more appropriate term) they didn’t mention is the WordPress Notifications procedure (or function?) … which attempts to notify the management of a site running WordPress when content on the site is mentioned. I am not exactly sure how it works – but I think both sites might have to be running WordPress (or at least software that is compatible with the notification procedure / function)… thereby enabling one site to send the other site some message indicating that the latter site was referenced by the first site. In traditional publishing, such references were called „footnotes“, and there was indeed also a tool in the paper era that notified authors when something they wrote had been cited (these were referred to as „citation indexes“).

I am belaboring this one algorithm (or procedure or function or whatever sort of code it might be) primarily because I think it could be coded better. As far as I know, whenever I mention the site concerning.ai in general, the concerning.ai site is not notified. The only way the concerning.ai site can be notified by my mentioning it is if I mention a particular piece of content – for example: Episode Number 14. I think it would be nice if the site would be notified even if I only refer to the site in general.

Ted and Brandon discuss that they don’t feel as if they can empathize with any of the algorithms they mention – but I feel the probably do. If they want to play Go, then they will probably be more likely to „hang out“ with a Go algorithm. If they want to meet people, they might be more likely to „hang out“ with a Facebook algorithm. If they want to watch Youtube videos, they might search for such information directly on Youtube, or perhaps the might utilize the Google search algorithm (in particular because Google and Youtube are apparently very closely related).

I have a hunch that the best way to think about this is via the concept of relationships. When my aim is to pound nails, then I will probably develop a close relationship with a hammer. If my aim is to play Go, then I could develop a relationship with algorithms devoted to Go (perhaps alpha-go.com or maybe play-go.net etc.), or perhaps I could input strings into some other algorithm (e.g. Google, Facebook, Youtube, etc.) and use whatever output I get in order to reach my goal. This might also work for the goal „have a conversation“. Indeed: many written texts are in a way conversations, and we often develop relationships with codices that are no longer limited to the life spans of their authors, etc. I don’t even know who invented hammers. I mainly simply think of them as „hammer“.

Please note that I have tried to make this post very brief. Lawrwnce Lessig has argued about the code in so-called “artificial languages” being like laws. I could equally well argue that the code in laws codified in so-called “natural language” are actually code. For more on this, please consider also reading “How to Constrain the Freedom to Choose the Best of all Possible Worlds During an Era of Uninterrupted Progress“.

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In Our Brains…

In our brains, almost everything is connected to the world outside of our brains. Thinking about artificial intelligence (AI), my friends Ted and Brandon are asking for help (@http://concerning.ai). In my humble opinion: If you want to „get somewhere“ then you need to think „outside of the box“.

What I’m writing here has mainly to do with things Brandon and Ted talk about in episode 10. Also, in episodes 11 and 12, Brandon and Ted talk with Evan Prodromou, a „practitioner“ in the field. Evan points out (at least) two fascinating points: 1. Procedural code and 2. Training sets. Below, I will also talk about these two issues.

When I said above that there is a need to „think out side of the box“, I was alluding to much larger systems than what is usually considered (note that Evan, Ted and Brandon also touched on a notion of „open systems“). For example: Language. So-called „natural language“ is extremely complex. To present just a shimmer of the enormous complexity of natural language, consider the „threshold anecdote“ Ted shared at the beginning of episode 11. A threshold is both a very concrete thing and also an abstract concept. When people use the term „threshold“, other people can only understand the meaning of the term by at the same time also considering the context in which the term is being used. This is for all practical purposes an intractable problem for any computational device which might be constructed by humans sometime in the coming century. Language itself does not exist in one person or one book, but it is something which is distributed among a large number of people belonging to the same linguistic community. The data is qualitative rather than quantitative. Only the most fantastically optimistic researchers would ever venture to try to „solve“ language computationally – and I myself was also once one such researcher. I doubt humans will ever be able to build such a machine… not only due to the vast resources it might require, but also because the nature of (human) natural language is orthogonal to the approach of „being solvable“ via procedural code.

Another anecdote I have often used to draw attention to how ridiculous the aim to „solve language“ seems is Kurzweil’s emphasis on pattern recognition. Patterns can only be recognized if they have been previously defined. Keeping with another example from episode 11, it would require humans to walk from tree to tree and say „this is an ash tree“ and „that is not an ash tree“ over and over until the computational device were able to recognize some kind of pattern. However, the pattern recognized might be something like „any tree located at a listing of locations where ash trees grow“. Indeed: The hope that increasing computational resources might make pattern recognition easier underscores the notion that such „brute force“ procedures might be applied. Yet the machine would nonetheless not actually understand the term „ash tree“. A computer can recognize what an ash tree is IFF (if and only if) a human first defines the term. If a human must first define the term, then there is in fact no „artificial intelligence“ happening at all.

I have a hunch that human intelligence has evolved according to entirely different laws – „laws of nature“ rather than „laws of computer science“ (and/or „mathematical logic“). Part of my thinking here is quite similar to what Tim Ferris has referred to as „not-to-do lists“ (see „The 9 Habits to Stop Now“). Similarly, it is well-known that Socrates referred to „divine signs“ which prevented him from taking one or another course of action. You might also consider (from the field of psychology) Kurt Lewin’s „Field Theory“ (in particular the “Force Field Analysis” of positive / negative forces) in this context, and/or (from the field of economics) the „random walk“ hypothesis. The basic idea is as follows: Our brains have evolved with a view towards being able to manage (or „deal with“) situations we have never experienced before. Hence „training sets“ are out of the question. We are required to make at best „educated“ guesses about what we should do in any moment. Language is a tool-set which has symbiotically evolved in our environment (much like the air we breathe is also conducive to our own survival). Moreover: Both we and our language (as also other aspects of our environment) continue to evolve. Taken to the ultimate extreme, this means that the coexistence of all things evolving in concert shapes the intelligence of each and every sub-system within the universe. To put it rather plainly: the evolution of birds and bees enables us to refer to them as birds and bees; the formation of rocks and stars enables us to refer to them as rocks and stars; and so on.

In case you find all of this somewhat scientific theory too theoretical, please feel free to check out one of my recently launched projects – in particular the „How to Fail“ page … over at bestopopular.com (which also utilizes the „negative thinking“ approach described above).

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